Book Review: Baluta - Daya Pawar

The original Marathi edition of Baluta has captivating cover art. It shows a sketch of a crow perched on the rim of an earthen pot, dropping pebbles in the pot, but completely oblivious to the glaring crack running down the pot. I remember that image from a copy lying in one corner of a bookshelf, but I was too young then to be interested. To me, this was just a sign of the artist trying to convey a sense of irony.

When I was in college I attempted reading Baluta in the original Marathi (Jerry Pinto’s is the only translation, which was published in 2015), but I couldn’t get beyond the first hundred pages. It was grotesque. Daya Pawar challenged civilized sensibilities with every word he penned. And that effect is far more pronounced in your mother tongue. When a born and raised Nagpurkar moves to Pune for studies and hears a very different Marathi, he thinks he’s heard the worst the Marathi language has to offer. But the world of Baluta is so alien, that it may well exist in a parallel universe. P. L. Deshpande and Vijay Tendulkar were once invited, according to Urmila Pawar, to write a preface to one of Namdeo Dhasal’s poems. They were shocked at how alien the language and the life of Dalits was to them. And considering how learned these men were, that is saying something.

And that’s only about the language and the storytelling. Of course it’s vulgar. It borders on the pornographic. You find it fascinating because it has never happened to you. If I said that the appeal of Baluta was only in its language, I would be missing the point.

As you get accustomed to the language, the storytelling and the aesthetics of Baluta, slowly, a very different world emerges. A world of scavengers, drunks, prostitutes, gangsters. A world of privilege and oppression, of aspirations and politics. By now, the reader doesn’t care about the language. It is the only vocabulary anyone possesses to be able to effectively talk about this world.

The English translation makes Baluta a little more palatable, but no less painful. I imagine Jerry Pinto would have been very frustrated at how much of Baluta has been lost in translation.

The slums of Ahmedabad were walled up when Donald Trump visited the city. Perhaps that was all it took to make ourselves pretty for Trump. Ahmedabad was magically transformed into a city without poverty overnight. There are many more such walls beyond which, I promise you, we will never see. This translation is a humble peephole.

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